Recently, it was stated on the Business of Fashion podcast that some 12,000 new beauty brands launch annually. That number is higher than ever, but it speaks to just how challenging it is for new brands to a. get noticed by consumers, b. earn their trust and c. do well, financially.

Drunk Elephant, the Houston-born skincare brand founded by Tiffany Masterson, was just one of thousands when it came to market back in 2013. But in 10 short years has grown to be one of the biggest, most-recognised indie beauty brands (the fact it sold in 2019 to Shiseido for a staggering $845 million only confirms it). At a glance the appeal is palpable: fun packaging, a kooky tone of voice, performance-led formulations and an interesting philosophy that blurs the lines between ‘cleanliness’ and ‘clinical-ness’. However the special sauce that’s made Drunk Elephant into the powerhouse it is today is so much more. It’s the sum of its parts, but there’s also a magic that starts with its founder.

I recently sat down with Masterson to celebrate a ‘House of Drunk’ pop-up in Paris – the first of its kind in Europe – to chat about the brand’s journey thus far. She’s not someone that has beauty in her bloodline (before launching, she was a stay at home mum) but rather a lateral thinker who was confident enough to approach skincare differently. Back then, there were hippy brands, clinical brands, luxuriates and heritage houses. But Drunk Elephant, a funny, science-forward product lineup that mashed efficacy with energy was somewhere in between; the genesis of a new ‘indie’ category made up of brands that worked, yes, but also community-focused, modern and transparent (otherwise, lord knows the internet would call them out on it).

After an hour with Masterson, I was even more sold. Calm, quirky and filled with genuinely brilliant ideas, it’s easy to see how she’s built one of the most buzzed-about skincare brands of the last decade. Read on for the interview, and to shop the brand which is stocked exclusively in Australia at Mecca.

Founder Tiffany Masterson

On Why She Started…

My own skin was a reason, for sure. I was a stay at home mum, but always very interested in food, health and wellness. I started studying skincare ingredient decks, and came across so many things I didn’t recognise. I looked into the why… what was the purpose of each? There was always a preservative, an antioxidant, an active, a stabiliser. I started to assign roles to ingredients; they were either for your skin, or for the formulation (either to preserve it, make it feel smooth, look good or smell pretty). But I really wondered why the formula’s needs were put before those of the skin?

I started thinking about ingredients that the skin can actually accept and benefit from – ingredients that were nourishing and compatible – and eliminating everything else. What would that be like? Also, it’s easy to forget but our skin knows what to do, it functions well when we don’t mess around with it! I realised that so many of us were attacking skin issues with ingredient that trigger the exact issue, or that so many people were constantly sensitised because of inflammatory ingredients. I just started putting all these pieces together as a consumer and thought I can make a line without any of this stuff. A light bulb went off and I thought, ‘I think there’s something to this.’

On the clean/clinical discourse: 

I remember writing my initial email to Sephora – I literally guessed every single first-and-last-name email combination in order to send it successfully– saying, ‘I have this brand called Drunk Elephant,’ and explained the philosophy. Then she wrote me back, and said, ‘which category? Clinical, or all natural?’ I wrote back and I said ‘neither! It’s a new category that’s non-toxic.’ I did say non-toxic at the time, but now I prefer to communicate DE as a hybrid of clinical and natural. We’re not completely natural, but the formulas are safe to use despite any skin concern. This is because we avoided what’s now known as the Suspicious Six: essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical sunscreens, fragrances/dyes and SLS. These ingredients trigger issues in so many people, so I made the choice to keep them out.

In those early stages, Sephora also asked me to provide them with three words that described the brand. I said clean, clinical and compatible. Clean was used in the context of food at the time, but not skincare. But then it cropped up in beauty, and the definition warped. It became a term related to fear mongering, and intertwined with the idea that if you weren’t ‘clean’ you were using toxic or dangerous ingredients. Now we try not to use the word because the definition – my definition – is easily lost. But overall it’s been great for the industry as it’s spurred a lot of accountability, but that time did make me consider our messaging. Now, we use ‘drunk break’ when we’re talking about avoiding the Suspicious Six. It’s not about ‘scary’ ingredients, but more about skin health.

“I started thinking about ingredients that the skin can actually accept and benefit from – ingredients that were nourishing and compatible – and eliminating everything else. What would that be like?”

On who the brand is for… 

Drunk Elephant is not a brand that’s geared towards women between 20 and 40. It’s a brand that’s geared towards anybody with skin – men, teenage boys, husbands, teenage girls, women, we have a solution for everyone. My son’s football buddies come to our place and ask for more pink serum (meaning T.L.C Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum). It’s a family brand, and there’s no rules on who can or can’t use it.

On the brand’s Personality

My goal was to create a brand that, when people saw it, they didn’t have to see the name. They just went, ‘oh, that’s Drunk Elephant.’ The brand is really my personality, and at the very core it’s about happiness. I wanted it to be joyful to look at. At the time when we launched, there was a lot of colour and whimsy in makeup, but in skincare, there was nothing. I wanted matte packaging, bright colours for individual products. I loved the idea of corrugated lines. My designer was able to translate it all perfectly. I don’t take myself too seriously, and I think the brand says that. We’re about fun, but also great formulations.

ON BIOCOMPATIBILITY

My approach came from thinking backwards. The industry was very focused on what went into a product rather that the holistic formula and its impacts on the skin. I have a tequila analogy. I always thought I couldn’t drink it, that it made me violently ill. But I came to realise it was the sugar and junk in a bad margarita that was making me sick. If I drink straight tequila, that’s good quality, I’m fine! I think of skincare in the same way. Take Glycolic Acid: a lot of people think they can’t use it, but it’s usually the surrounding ingredients that compromise the skin, triggering irritation. If you drink a green juice, but then chase it with a chocolate sundae, bottle of wine and packet of cigarettes, you’ll probably throw up – even though the juice was nutritious. Your stomach says no, and our skin is the same. If you take out things causing you inflammation or sensitivity, actives like Glycolic Acid and Retinol are able to work effectively and harmoniously.

“Drunk Elephant is not a brand that’s geared towards women between 20 and 40. It’s a brand that’s geared towards anybody with skin – men, teenage boys, husbands, teenage girls, women, we have a solution for everyone”

ON FORMULATING AND DESIGNING

New products come from different places. Sometimes it’s from our consumers, sometimes it’s an ingredient I really want to work with, or sometimes it’s a personal need; a lot of what we make, I make for myself! I’ve also got three daughters, a son, a husband, lots of family… they’re always full of ideas. My brother wanted deodorant, my son asked for lip balm. My son was breaking out from football so I told him to use A-Passioni and Marula Oil. He hated mixing the two, and that formed the basis for A-Gloei. It was even my mum who planted the seed for Protini. That product was done on a flight from Houston to New York. I chose the name, considered the formula, the key ingredients. I got on the plane with nothing and got off with Protini! But some things come easier than others.

I am very inspired by food, health, supplements and super foods as well. I love giving existing products or concepts a Drunk Elephant twist. Our Micellar Water is a great example. There’s thousands of formulas on the market but we approached it differently. I used to be very resistant to newness as I hated the idea of too many products, I wanted to keep things tight. But I realise we now have something for everyone, without being excessive.

On Smoothies

Our products mix together easily and are highly absorbable, which is why our ‘smoothies‘ work so well. It’s also fun, and enables people to listen to their skin, because they’re smart, their skin is smart and they know its needs. For example if you’re in the snow, you might want more Lala Retro and Marula Oil, plus T.L.C to get rid of dead, dry cells. It’s about supporting your skin to be its best, healthiest self.

“I have a tequila analogy. I always thought I couldn’t drink it, that it made me violently ill. But I came to realise it was the sugar and junk in a bad margarita that was making me sick. If I drink straight tequila, that’s good quality, I’m fine! I think of skincare in the same way”

Shop these iconic Drunk Elephant formulas via mecca below

Drunk Elephant virgin marula luxury face oil, $57. SHOP NOW Drunk Elephant lala retro whipped cream, $90. SHOP NOW

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum, $106. SHOP NOW

Drunk Elephant A-gloei maretinol oil $108. SHOP NOW

thoughts?